Unravelling the History of Glass Beads in Arnhem Land

Daryl Wesley, Mirani Lister

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

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    This paper charts the early history of Indigenous engagements with Macassans, Europeans and other foreigners in western Arnhem Land and highlights that there has been little documentation of glass beads associated with these interactions. Archaeological excavations conducted by one of the authors and the Australian National University in 2008-2010 resulted in the recovery of a glass bead assemblage from seven western Arnhem Land archaeological sites. Preliminary analysis of the bead assemblage and its associated archaeological context supports the case for the introduction othese items to Arnhem Land Indigenous communities starting with South East Asian trepang fishennen from Makassar, Sulawesi, before the European settlement of northern Australian in the 1820s. Glass beads later became a significant commodity following European settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the development of a variety of commercial enterprises and the establishment of Aboriginal mission settlements in Arnhem Land. This new archaeological evidence fills important knowledge gaps as to when, where and how beads may have started to gain value as a commodity. We present here a description of 106 glass beads/fragments found in the seven Indigenous archaeological sites. We integrate this with the history of Indigenous culture contact and the traditional exchange systems that enabled the incorporation and commodification of glass beads into the existing Aboriginal material cultural systems.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages42
    Publication statusPublished - 2015
    Event4th Borneo International Beads Conference: Stringing Past to Present - Kuching, Malaysia
    Duration: 9 Oct 201511 Oct 2015


    Conference4th Borneo International Beads Conference
    OtherThe 4th Borneo International Beads Conference, entitled "Stringing Past to Present", will be held in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, between 9 and 11 October 2015. The bead culture of Sarawak, part of a greater Malaysian heritage, is rooted in centuries of tradition. An ancient maritime trading network linked Sarawak to the world; the beads most treasured today came from production centres on the Malay Peninsula, India, China, and even further afield. In the hands of Sarawak’s craftwomen and collectors, these masterpieces of the glassmaker’s art became intrinsically ‘Borneo Beads.’ The 4th Borneo International Beads Conference will feature several activities, including:

    Papers presented by leading bead researchers, printed in the BIBCo Journal 2015
    Beads Abuzz, the international bazaar
    Lamp Bead-making workshop
    Polymer clay beadmaking workshop
    Paper bead rolling workshop
    Natural fibre bead plaiting workshop
    Bead stringing workshop
    Eco-bead painting workshop
    Borneo indigenous bead-working techniques workshop
    Plus other bead technique demonstrations


    • glass beads
    • Arnhem Land
    • Indigenous communities
    • archaeological sites
    • Indigenous Cultures


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